A Syrian Rebel sniper looks at the rubble in the Syrian city of Ain al-Arab. Jan. 30, 2015
BEIRUT — Turkey and the United States signed a deal last month to collaborate on training “moderate rebels” to fight in Syria within the next four to six weeks. But there is a problem: The two countries have contradictory goals for these fighters to achieve.
This will be the third time the U.S. has trained militants as part of its strategy to combat the crisis since late 2011. Rebel groups aided by the U.S. in the past, such as the Hazzm movement, are plagued by ineffectiveness and a lack of support. Others have disbanded, sometimes joining groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Turkey is emerging as a power to be reckoned within the Middle East, and says it plans to use the rebels to fight and destroy the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Meanwhile, the U.S. says that it plans to use those same fighters to defeat ISIS, which has emerged as a bigger threat to its interests in the Middle East than the Assad regime.
Iran, which has been an enemy of the U.S. since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has made headway with the Obama administration. It’s become a kind of de facto ally in the fight against both al-Qaida and ISIS in Iraq and Syria, despite the fact that Tehran-backed Shiite militias, such as the Badr Organization and Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, are accused of committing violent, sectarian-based atrocities against Sunni Muslims throughout Iraq in similar fashion to ISIS.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, meets with Saudi King Salman, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Monday, March 2, 2015.
Turkey advocates a political solution to the current crisis in Syria, but demands that Assad step down, a prerequisite that Syria’s government and its allies, including Russia and Iran, have refused. Turkey supports a resolution to the crisis using the guidelines established in June 2012 during the Geneva I conference.
“The way out depends on a political solution, but the political solution also requires pressure on the Assad regime to accept a political way out,” according to Şaban Kardaş, president of the Middle East Strategic Research Center in Ankara. He was speaking on a March 2 panel at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs in Beirut, Lebanon.
Part of Turkey’s strategy to get Assad to accept the principles laid down in the Geneva Communiqué (Geneva I agreement) is to put pressure on the government through the support of rebel fighters in Syria, including Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate also known as the Nusra Front.
“In order to get the regime to accept it there has to be force, pressure on the regime,” said Kardaş.
“In addition, Turkey wants to see a no-fly zone or a safe zone established in some parts of the country so that it can stop the regime’s aerial attacks on the civilian areas, opposition controlled areas, so that the … military balance on the ground will be tilted in a way [that] the regime also accepts the political transition,” he continued.
In effect, Ankara is demanding that unless the war is ended on its terms, the war will continue. The “pressure” Kardaş was referring to involves militant rebel groups that will continue to put pressure on the Syrian government by fighting until the government capitulates.
Turkey has been criticized for this stance and even blamed for holding up a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Ankara has been prodding Washington to focus its efforts on getting rid of Assad, then going after ISIS.
Up until last month, the Erdoğan government has been reluctant to work more closely together with the U.S. in fighting ISIS unless the U.S. agreed to impose a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, including Hasakah, Idlib, Jarablus and Kobani, training Syrian rebels, and to target the Syrian government in attacks.
Imposing a no-fly zone over Syria would imply that the U.S. is at war with Syria, and the U.S. has refused to do so.
The purpose of the no-fly/safe zone, according to Aaron Stein at Foreign Affairs, would be “to establish a rival government to that of Assad in Damascus.” Afterward, he asserted, “this nascent government would secure support from local Syrians by providing services. Eventually, the international community would come to recognize it as the official Syrian government.”
Another problem Ankara has with Washington’s reluctance to intervene in the conflict more directly is that the U.S. is focused primarily on defeating ISIS, not Assad.
At a Pentagon press conference on Feb. 27, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said that the goal in the upcoming operation to train Syrian rebel fighters with Turkey is to enable those forces to “defend their communities, protect their own neighbors, and then go on the offense against ISIL [the U.S. government’s preferred term for ISIS].”
“The Syria component of this campaign is an anti-ISIL component,” Kirby said. “That’s the focus, not about the Assad regime.”
In fact, the U.S. is working with more than one untraditional ally in these efforts, like the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey and is designated as a terrorist group by both the U.S. and Europe.
In Beirut, Kardaş said, “Another important principle of Turkey’s policy for Syria is the territorial integrity of the country – It has to be preserved… [It is] one of the preconditions of Turkey’s policy.”
This is likely due to concerns about the PYD acquiring some degree of autonomy, which it has now, claiming that Northeastern Turkey is called “Rojava” (sunset).
Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations and Arab League Envoy to Syria, has held peace talks with Assad and numerous rebel groups and is trying to create a cease-fire in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria. He is on a mission to create an initial six-week armistice and channel humanitarian aid into the city.
“One is the need to focus on the real threat of terrorism as defined by the resolutions of the Security Council. Second is to reduce violence… Three, through the reduction of violence, try to reach as many people as possible in Syria and outside Syria who have been suffering due to this ongoing conflict; and through that, hopefully facilitate it and use that as a building block in the direction of a political solution,” de Mistura said in November,
Assad and the Russian government have shown interest in this plan, while Turkey has not. Kardaş explained, “The Turkish position is that the Mistura plan, which foresees a local freeze in Aleppo, is not a properly worked out solution.”
“It doesn’t solve the expectations of the opposition in the sense that a temporary freeze may turn into a capitulation into the regime. This is a concern. There is no enforcement and monitoring mechanism for the Mistura freeze plan.”
He also said, “The recent talks in Moscow and Cairo [about the Mistura plan] from the Turkish point of view, they are lacking significant major opposition groups representation.”
“But the Erdogan government is not happy with a focus on ‘terrorism’ that doesn’t include the Assad government, a posture that has isolated Turkey regionally and internationally,” wrote Conn Hallinan, a columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus.
Hallinan wrote in December, “The pieces for a political resolution of the Syrian civil war are finally coming together.”
But, he concluded, “there remains one major obstacle: Turkey.”
A looming US-Iran alliance?
Members of the Iran’s armed forces, some wearing ghilli suits, march during an annual military parade marking the 34th anniversary of outset of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, in front of the mausoleum of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini just outside Tehran, Iran, Monday, Sept. 22, 2014.
One of the main reasons the U.S. seems to be more focused on defeating ISIS than facilitating the downfall of Assad is that it has transformed its policy with regards to the Middle East to include Iran as a significant power in the region. Washington is likely having back channel talks with the Islamic Republic about the situation in Syria.
One of the signs of this new policy emerged this last week, when Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the presence of Iranian forces in the battle for Tikrit, Iraq, which started on March 2, could be “a positive thing in terms of the counter-ISIL [the U.S. government’s preferred term for ISIS] campaign.”
Prior to the upcoming Tikrit campaign, the two countries had engaged in talks that coalesced into concrete action and agreement in 2014, when they worked together to replace Iraq’s overly sectarian Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
They have also collaborated tactically to fight ISIS, a common enemy, in Iraq on other occasions.
Indeed, the two countries have a longer history of working together than is commonly discussed in news media.
During George W. Bush’s presidency, Iran and the U.S. engaged in high-level diplomatic talks more than once. The first case followed the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
James Dobbins, former U.S. ambassador to the European Union and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, explained:
“There is a popular perception in the United States that in the aftermath of 9/11, the United States formed a coalition and overthrew the Taliban. Actually, in the aftermath of 9/11, the United States joined an existing coalition which had been trying to overthrow the Taliban for almost a decade. The coalition consisted of India, Russia, Iran and the Northern Alliance. With the addition of American airpower, that coalition succeeded in ousting the Taliban.”
Following that pivotal moment, the most prominent Afghan opposition groups and representatives from the region’s largest powers, including Russia, India, Pakistan and Iran, convened in Bonn, Germany, to draft an interim constitution for Afghanistan in December 2001.
According to Dobbins, “Iran played a highly constructive role” in this process, too. In fact, it was the Iranians, not the Americans, who suggested that the new constitution should “mention elections,” thus giving way to democracy.
On the final evening of the conference, all aspects of the constitution had been agreed upon except who would lead the country. The various Afghan parties were quarrelling over the number of ministries there would be and which factions would control what.
The Northern Alliance, which was supported by Iran before the downfall of the Taliban, was adamant that it should control 18 of the 26 ministries. But in the final remaining hours of negotiations, the Iranian envoy stepped in and whispered something into the ear of the Northern Alliance representative Yunus Qanooni. Moments later, the Northern Alliance envoy agreed to give up two ministries and allowed three more to be created, which the opposing factions were allowed to control.
“Four hours later, the Bonn Agreement was formally adopted. Ten days thereafter, Hamid Karzai was inaugurated in Kabul as the head of the new Afghan government,” Dobbins wrote.
Things soured shortly thereafter, however.
Just one month later, then-president George W. Bush announced in his first State of the Union address that Iran, Iraq and North Korea constituted an “axis of evil,” and threatened to overthrow the governments of states along that so-called axis. In response, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “called it an honor to be targeted by ‘the most-hated Satan in the world,’” as Time magazine reported.
In the address, Bush asserted: “America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation’s security… I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”
Bush invaded Iraq just over one year later, and Tehran started to worry that Iran would be next.
The question now is whether the U.S. will attempt to bolster its relations with Iran and encourage a peaceful resolution to the crisis affecting the region, or revert back to isolating the country and provoking further division that threatens to destroy the whole Middle East.